When “free forever” means “free for the next 4 months”

Alya Abbott 6 min read

Last week, the open-core team chat platform Mattermost announced that “Mattermost Cloud Free will no longer be offered after July 26, 2023.” This likely came as an unpleasant surprise to users on that plan, as less than a month before, Mattermost’s pricing page featured the promise that the Cloud Free plan would be “free forever”.

To be clear, nobody is entitled to free cloud hosting, and there is nothing wrong with a business choosing not to offer it. Moreover, the 90-day grace period Mattermost is providing for the transition is better than one often sees when a company shuts down a product or free plan. And unlike users of fully proprietary software, Mattermost’s customers have the option to self-host the product as an alternative to paying $10/user/month, or moving to another platform.

But Mattermost is breaking the “free forever” promise made to its customers, and without any acknowledgement or apology. The “free forever” note was quietly removed from Mattermost’s website in the month leading up to the announcement, and is never mentioned in the email Mattermost sent to affected customers. Surely, one can expect better than that from a company whose stated principles include “customer obsession” and “earn trust”.

If you pretend you didn’t do it, maybe the world won’t notice?

Unfortunately, attempts to sweep changes that negatively impact customers under the rug are commonplace, even considering just vendors of team chat products. Last summer, Slack presented as mere “simplification” a dramatic change to its free plan that made the service untenable for many of its users.

This spring, open-core team chat vendor Rocket.Chat moved its read receipts feature from the free open-source version to its enterprise offering without warning, deeply upsetting some users. Rather than acknowledge the change, the release announcement touted it as if this 2018 feature were brand new.

“With 6.0, we empower our Enterprise Edition users with the ability to enable read receipts for every conversation.”

Rocket.Chat, as their way of announcing that read receipts would no longer be available to users self-hosting the open-source Community Edition.

Being worthy of your customers’ trust

Being a trustworthy vendor is about more than communication. It’s essential to consider your users’ interests when making decisions, large and small. If your product is packed with dark patterns, no communication strategy can make your company worthy of trust.

Still, every business sometimes needs to share negative news with its customers — a price increase, a feature that had been free moved to a paid plan, information about an outage or a security incident, etc. How can companies do so without making users feel that their trust has been betrayed?

Here at Zulip, we have made intentional choices in an effort to be worthy of our customers’ trust:

  1. Communicating transparently. We do our best to communicate clearly with our customers, whether the news is good or bad. When we discover a security vulnerability, we report it via the CVE program, email impacted customers as soon as a fix is in place, and share the information publicly on our blog. Our product plans are described publicly in our GitHub issue tracker, and discussed openly in the Zulip development community.

  2. Making commitments we are confident we can keep. We have made public commitments on a handful of topics which are strongly aligned with our company values, such as keeping Zulip 100% open-source and staying out of the crypto asset gold rush. But we have been careful not to make any promises that might no longer align with the needs of our business a few years down the line.

“Don't go making all these promises you know you cannot keep
There's a time to play the king and a time to be a thief
'Cause if you're making all these promises you know you cannot keep
You know time will be the thief…”

— Savage Garden, “Promises”

We are also growing our business sustainably, without venture capital funding. This allows us to live by our values, without investor pressure to compromise them when doing so might be “good business” or “what everyone does”.

Why is Mattermost’s “free forever” plan no more?

Mattermost could have avoided all the challenges of dropping its “free forever” plan by continuing to offer it. So why did the company decide to drop its free plan in the first place? As an open-source team chat company that offers our own free and paid cloud hosting plans, we have some ideas:

  • Offering free cloud hosting for team chat can be expensive, depending on the technical and organizational details of how it’s managed.
    • Hosting expenses: Zulip Cloud hosting uses a multitenant model, which makes the baseline cost for hosting an organization very low. However, it’s technically complex to support both multitenancy and a self-hosting option in a single codebase. Mattermost’s cloud service instead uses a dedicated application server (“single application layer”) for each customer. This likely makes the baseline cost of hosting an organization non-trivial for Mattermost, as also indicated by Mattermost’s cost-saving policy of hibernating workspaces after just 14 days of inactivity.
    • User support: Support can be a major operational cost for offering a free plan. Zulip’s support strategy is, as much as possible, to solve the reported problem in a way that makes it unlikely to recur. For example, we make it a high priority to fix reported bugs, add documentation, and publicly file feature requests in our GitHub tracker. This lets us scale our user base without hiring a large support team, but it’s not how most companies handle their support load.
  • Money is tight for venture-funded companies like Mattermost. Venture capital investment has been dropping precipitously — funding for late-stage companies like Mattermost is down 2.4x in the first quarter of 2023, compared to the 2021 peak. Having last raised funding back in June 2019, Mattermost could be under pressure to make difficult decisions in order to improve its finances.
  • Mattermost’s free cloud plan is evidently failing to drive business. Zulip serves a variety of organizations that benefit from organized team chat, so our Cloud Free offering is a great way to bring in potential customers. Mattermost is focused specifically on “technical and operational teams”, and the motivation section of their announcement strongly hints that, for the most part, these aren’t the kinds of customers using their Cloud Free plan.

A final note for Mattermost’s Cloud Free users

As you are considering alternatives to paying for Mattermost’s cloud hosting, check out Zulip’s Cloud Free plan. To minimize disruption, you can import your Mattermost organization into Zulip, including users and message history. We fully expect to continue offering the Zulip Cloud Free plan indefinitely, and are excited to empower effective collaboration for teams large and small.